For our last piece this week (but by no means least!) we spoke to Melissa Buerbaumer, CPA, PhD and Head of Accounting and Reporting at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Can you tell us a bit about your current role?
I currently work as Head of Accounting and Reporting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) an Organisation which is part of the United Nations System and is based in Vienna, Austria. The IAEA works for the safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology. Its key roles contribute to international peace and security, and to the world’s Millennium Goals for social, economic and environmental development.
My role as Head of Accounting and Reporting is to be mainly responsible for the preparation of the annual financial statements in line with International Public Sector Accounting Standards and the Agency’s rules and procedures, ensuring timely and efficient processing of financial transactions. In addition I am responsible for driving changes and process improvements related to financial reporting, serve as an expert and advisor in finance issues, develop and monitor new policies as needed, promote quality management and foster innovative solutions, represent the IAEA in a variety of related issues in my area of responsibility in collaboration with other international organisations. Finally I am responsible for inspiring and developing my team, providing leadership and professional direction to staff and ensuring the efficient management of the team.
How did you get to this point in your career? What have been some of the key influences that have helped shape your journey?
I decided I wanted to work for the United Nations very early in my career, when I was about 22 years old. I wanted to be surrounded by a truly culturally diverse and international team, working towards global goals of peacekeeping, reduction of poverty, gender equality and sustainable development, among others. My aim was to make a difference by bringing to the UN the best combination of motivation, skills, talent and qualifications I possible could. However, the process for recruitment to the UN is extremely competitive (you are actually competing with the entire world!) so I knew I had to set the bar really high for myself.
In addition to my mother tongue, which is Portuguese, I was fluent in English, French, and I learned German and Spanish; I pursued a PhD program in Economics and finished my qualification as a Certified Public Accountant in the USA, ranking among the best 10% country-wide. Finally, at the age of 28, having passed the recruitment process for finance, I was appointed to join the UN Headquarters in New York. In addition to my qualifications I was bringing 5 years of professional experience in audit and finance, which I acquired by working in the Deloitte and Touche offices of Lisbon, New York and Vienna.
My first assignment was in the finance area for Peacekeeping, with a budget that started at less than USD 3 billion in 2003 and increased to close to USD 8 billion million in 2010. I enjoyed being part of the UN World in New York city Headquarters. However, after about 6 years, family obligations made me seek a move back to Europe and I became Chief of Accounts with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the world’s largest regional security organisation, which is based in Vienna. The mandate of OSCE is very wide, but the Organization is much smaller than the UN; this meant that I was exposed to a more diverse experience as I had to wear so many different ‘hats’ and was in charge of higher levels of responsibility. After 5 years at the OSCE, an opportunity appeared at the IAEA, and that is where I started in July 2015.
Looking back at my career path, I would say it was shaped at the same time by two factors, a strong motivational goal to be part of the UN World, but also by my family.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to continue to develop my career within the UN World and will probably work in other duty stations, and continents. I like to learn foreign languages and new cultures, and if you can have a professional career that allows you to develop what you enjoy most, then you can definitely call yourself privileged.
Do you have heroes and influencers either professionally or personally? And why are they important to you?
There are a few good leaders in the UN. Having worked both in the private and the non-for-profit world, I find it far more difficult to prove yourself in the latter. In the private sector your goals are easily measured, and you can convert them into monetary terms, improve your client base, increase the revenue, explore new markets, make more profit and your shareholders will be happy. You are on the right path to move up in the career ladder.
In the UN you need to juggle with an array of factors not necessarily under your control, your objective is to deliver on the mandate, but how do you go about measuring the effectiveness of that delivery? You rely on the Member States (and these are 193 countries) to agree on mandate, get the troops (the ’blue helmets’) to be deployed to achieve peace in the middle of a war zone, but ultimately you still rely on having a presence and work on diplomacy. This is just on the front of peacekeeping, but the UN mandate is multi-folded. I came to admire those leaders that can at the same time motivate and inspire their teams, sometimes of frustrated staff, work on the diplomacy frontline and keep up delivering great work, sometimes under extreme situations. It is important to have those leaders, and it is important that the staff and the people in general believe that the UN mandate is still worth fighting for.
What hints/tips/advice would you give others in your field?
My advice in the field of finance, accounting and reporting will depend again on the context where one is working. If you are in the private sector, your goal is to get the best qualifications possible, and get those as early as possible (I mean before you have kids, after that it will become a little bit more challenging), understand the market, the corporate culture, expand your client base and keep up with best practices and latest developments in the finance area. Learn and become an expert in one or more IT systems (being it SAP, Oracle, or others). But normally, the chances are, the more profit you bring (or the more you can help your boss to make a profit), the better your annual bonus will be, the faster the career… If you are in the World of International not for profit organisations, the same applies in terms of qualifications and technical expertise, but above all you have to believe in the mandate of the organisation, to really appreciate and value the cultural diversities in the workplace, promote inclusiveness, have integrity, communicate the vision, understand and integrate political sensitivities, promote consensus… the list goes on.
You might want to try your chances in a different area of expertise within your organisation, and while this might delay your career development in the short or medium term, in the long run, this wider portfolio of knowledge might become an excellent asset later on in your career path.
But regardless where you work, always try to go the extra mile doing something for the organisation’s mandate, for the clients, the colleagues, your staff, the top management, and if you go all those miles with the proper balance (without rushing), at the end you ultimately are doing something really good for yourself too… Your purpose is first to find how you can be of best use for the organisation, not how the organisation can be of use for your goals. If you are already a manager, make sure you believe in your staff. Normally staff behave as they are treated – if you treat them as intelligent, capable professionals, they will act as such, but if you micromanage them every step of the way without giving them any room to grow, they will just shrink. That is probably the best advice I can give to anyone in any field of expertise.
What makes you really happy? Your children? Cats or other quirky pets? Walks on the beach? A lovely cup of coffee or maybe just a really well organised spreadsheet! We’d love to know a bit more about YOU.
I am a mother of two boys, 8 and 10 years old, so my top priority is devoted to spending quality time with them. I am Portuguese, but my kids were born in New York and we currently live in Austria; I like to travel between these three different locations, in Austria I love the mountains and the lakes, in Portugal the fantastic climate, the food and the natural beauties of the beaches along the Atlantic coast. My kids also enjoy Portugal, and there is still plenty to explore and discover with them back home. But for city life, my top selection is New York; there is something special about the vibe of that city that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, so being able to spend some time there is always something I look forward to.
At work what I like the most is to engage in change management projects where people get to do different things and explore their dormant talents; I also enjoy preparing and delivering training, collaborating with other international organizations and exchanging best practices, and finally to work on policy research and development. I have received recognition from staff, peers and management in the sense that I have helped to inspire and guide people and bring a positive change to the work place – and that is always something that I ultimately enjoy doing.
This has been a really interesting insight into the world of ’not for profit’ organisations; thank you Melissa for sharing your career journey with us and a thank you again to all our delegates who participated in this series, it’s been a real pleasure.